Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Digital Transition: A Sports Bar’s Worst Nightmare

Everybody’s heard and read something about HDTV and the world’s transition from our current analog standard TV system to the new digital standard, right? Today most countries in the world use either a system known as NTSC or PAL for broadcast television transmission and display. Both systems are very similar in that they are analog-based and display either 525 or 625 lines of resolution on the screen. Regardless of screen size (from 3” to 300”) you’re still seeing either 525 lines of video or 625 lines of video.

But, over the next three to five years, the entire world will be switching to a digital-based transmission system that will accommodate up to 1080 lines of resolution for TV viewing. That will yield much higher resolution images and broadcasts for everything from sitcoms to educational shows to sporting events.

In fact, in many areas of the world, you can already receive these new digital signals with a conventional rooftop antenna and pick-up a couple of local channels broadcasting in the new HDTV (high definition television) format. Soccer’s upcoming World Cup, football’s SuperBowl and baseball’s World Series are all available in HDTV!

In fact, much of what’s out there on HDTV now can actually be displayed in either digital or analog HD formats. Sure, the digital HD format with its DVI (digital visual interface) or HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) connector and signal formats look a lot sharper than the analog component video counterpart. But, they still blow away NTSC and PAL sporting events that are blurry and at a loss for resolution.

Sports bars love this. The added resolution makes large-screen projection and flat-screen formats look awesome. So good, in fact, that you can actually see facial expressions on the faces of the fans sitting on the sidelines, the puck flying across the ice in hockey (assuming hockey still exists), the color of shoe laces in soccer and you can even read the obnoxious signs held up by fans at virtually any sporting event (my personal favorite was ‘Duke Sucketh’)– in HDTV resolution.

But, are these Sports Bars really ready for the transition? Did they plan for this? When they were working with their AV integrator, did they have a transition plan from analog HD to digital HD?

Probably not.

Today, it’s estimated that more than 6,000 sports bars exist across North America touting their new HDTV display technology – drawing sports fans from as far as 200 miles away just to see the big game in HDTV format. Europe, another 1,200 sports pubs, as they call them. But, did you know that more than 90 percent of these are routed and displayed in the current analog HD format and not in the future digital format?

Why should they care?

Well, according to the FCC, by July 1, 2007, the USA will be ready for digital-HD formatting and will order that the analog ports be shut off from showing high resolution HD content. Yes, shut off. So, when this happens, the HD component output will no longer carry anything higher than 480p resolution video. In other words, the native 720p and 1080i HD formats won’t work at all – unless, of course, you use the digital DVI or HDMI ports. You see, these digital ports can’t be copied so Hollywood supports this transition as it virtually eliminates content pirating/theft.

Simple enough -- just switch the output ports, right?

Well, not so easy. Sure, if your TV’s HD satellite or cable box is directly connected to the TV with a single cable, all is OK. But, if you’re connected like most sports bars are where signal routing is done via component HDTV distribution amplifiers and switchers and lots of high resolution coax cable, no way.

In fact, their system design will have to be overhauled completely. Every DA, every switcher, every cable and every connector will have to be re-installed and changed to DVI or HDMI for anything other than 480p - enhanced definition television (EDTV) - to be displayed. And, who wants to look at EDTV when you can get HDTV?

So, what’s the message here?

Well, if you’re an AV systems integrator designing systems using digital cable, satellite TV or any sort of HD format, you need to be future-thinking and have a plan for how you’re going to go back later and change out what you’ve put in there and make it true, digital HDTV. Or, at the very least, fully-disclose to your clients what’s happening in just a couple of years. Or they’ll come back to you complaining that you didn’t.

If you’re a customer: beware. Not every AV integration firm realizes that we are in the midst of this transition to digital TV. Sure, everyone knows it’s happening, but the extent to which this affects TV viewing may not be apparent. HDTV will eventually ONLY be digital.

Finally, if you’re a consumer – don’t go out and buy an old-technology analog format TV. Buy the new generation HDTV format displays and take the time to look on the back and make sure there’s either an HDMI or a DVI connection for truly digital HDTV display.

Friday, March 18, 2005

My Love/Hate Relationship with TiVo

I love TiVo.

I hate TiVo.

If you have TiVo in your bedroom, you know exactly what I am talking about. What the heck is the deal?

TiVo is an awesome invention.  All the imitators SUCK in comparison.  No one's DVR has come close to matching the user-interface design and ease-of-use of TiVo.  Not ReplayTV, not Time Warner's sickly Scientific Atlanta DVR offerings and certainly not the new generation of MultiMedia PC's.  TiVo blows them all away.  Anyone can use it.  You never need to read a user's manual and you certainly don't need to re-boot it all the time to keep it up and running.

But, what the heck is the deal with the obnoxiously loud hard drive noise? Many nights I can tune it out and sleep.  But there are some nights where I have to actually unplug power from it just to fall asleep.

Turn off the power you say?  No way.  Doesn't work.  Noise is still there. In fact, I'm not even sure what the power button's supposed to do.

Anyway, apparently the hard drive needs to continuously run to keep it operating efficiently. I've asked and asked TiVo what to do or if they can offer a solution, but none yet.   My laptop, my PC, my cell phone, my PDA - nothing makes as much noise as TiVo's hard drive.

But, I have to admit:  I still LOVE my TiVo!!!

Monday, March 14, 2005

NSCA Needs Manufacturers on Board

Before I totally disagree with the editor of ProAV magazine this month, let me say that I am, however, impressed with what Mark Mayfield has done over there at ProAV. Two years ago, it was a useless ProAV publication. Now, it's more than readable! Some of the articles go on and on and on about technical topics that only a select few care about, but most of the publication is awesome! Congrats Mark.

However, you are DEAD WRONG this month's (March 2005) issue in your column "Reasons For Change." Dead wrong!

In it, you argue that NSCA should stay a closed society - not allowing the Board to be made up of more than dealers and integrators of AV gear. In theory this may be a good "concept." And, back in the good 'ole days where manufacturers colluded on prices and didn't give much back to the industry, this was a smart platform for an organization - as someone had to look out for the little guys out there schlepping the gear.

But, NSCA is missing out on a lot more than equal Board representation by not allowing manufacturers to join in. Look at the amazing financial commitments that companies are making over at both InfoComm and CEDIA that NSCA is missing out on. Whether or not you like it or appreciate it, money runs a market and right now InfoComm and CEDIA have a lot more in their
coffers than NSCA. This is no fault of NSCA, of course.

Also, what about representation? The ProAV market is made up of manufacturers, consultants, architects and dealers - not just dealers. Dealers sell it, but without everyone else it'd be hard to sell much stuff.

And, your argument ignores the market shift. No one can deny that the ProAV market is shifting from its traditional dealer (and Rep) channel to one that incorporates distributors and Internet retailers. Again, whether or not you like it, it's there. So, ignoring the manufacturer encourages them to ignore you. None are, to my knowledge, doing this today, but they will. Mark my words. Ignore them and they will ignore you.

Finally, what funds NSCA today is, as I pointed out earlier, money. Today, that money comes from the Expo - Systems Integration Expo (known as the NSCA show). Ignore manufacturers and, again, there will be no show. No show, no money.

Special (Unplanned) Events at NSCA

The weather in Orlando during NSCA was clear, sunny,and just lovely. Well, outside, anyway. Inside, it was another story late Thursday afternoon as the ceiling above the Christie booth let forth a downpour that went on and on and on.

“As soon as the pipe burst, a swarm of Christie people and NSCA staffers were pulling critical gear from the booth and covering the rest with anything waterproof,” says Max Kopsho, Christie product manager. “Thanks to the heroic efforts of everyone involved, none of the equipment was seriously damaged and we were able to get our booth fully operational in time for the next day on the show floor.”

Kopsho says personnel from Freeman Decorating also jumped in to help, and the booth was back in running condition as of 1 a.m.

“I'd like to make a special point of noting some of the considerable efforts and hard work put forth by the technical support and events management team at Christie,” says Kopsho. “Steve Capling, our events manager, took command and led the charge to a full recovery. He proved himself to be a great example of grace under fire (or water, in this case). Billy DeWolf and Paul Comella, two of our finest field application engineers, jumped into action and used their vast technical know-how and years of trade show experience to do in hours what normally takes days to do. Dave Muscat, our Canadian sales manager (who as of this trade show is an honorary 'techie'), spent the evening and part of the early morning tearing down and setting up the Christie booth.

“As a product manager, I have always been proud of the products we develop at Christie and this show is especially unique. We have some new high end 3-chip 10Bit DLP projectors that will just blow you away. Now I have to say that this experience has made me even prouder. Who else can say their projectors can survive a flood and prove it? More importantly and seriously I do have to say that this experience does have me feeling very proud about the people I work with, not just at Christie, but throughout this industry.”

Friday afternoon brought another surprise when a voice over the loudspeaker ordered everyone to evacuate. That sent the crowd of thousands dashing to the door until another voice came on saying it was a false alarm. The voice also said later the evacuation didn’t apply to the attendees at NSCA, but I later spoke to someone who had been at the Global Pet Expo next door and she didn’t hear any of it.

It might have been mildly amusing to many, in hindsite, but not to at least one New Yorker with whom I spoke later that day. Those sorts of mistakes terrify anyone who has been through such trauma as 9/11.

Denise Harrison, Editor-in-Chief, rAVe

Friday, March 11, 2005

Breaking News -- Swiderski Closes Shop

March 10, 2005

It's a tight-knit group up there in Itasca, Illinois -- so we learned when investigating the breaking news that after 57 years, powerhouse ProAV systems integrator Swiderski Electronics closed their doors as of late last week. Between NEC and a number of other companies in the area, most people in our industry have worked with or for Swiderski. Most people are shocked, all were sad.

Why is this news? As we at rAVe have said for a while, business is going to be tougher as profit margins erode and services become the more desirable client offering. But that's not all that easy, either.

Bob Stern, central region sales manager for Kramer, worked for Swiderski and remembers:

"Before I was hired at Swiderski my impression was that this company was the "gold standard" of the AV integration industry in the Midwest. Their yearly "Swiderski Expos" were regularly attended by almost 1000 people and 100 manufacturers over a 2 day period. There was nothing like it in the area.

" There were many account executives that came and went in the few years I was there. Many, such as myself, went on to successful careers working at the manufacturer's level. Others went to competitors and some left the industry altogether.

"As an elite AV engineering firm, Swiderski, in recent years, had trouble getting their executives to sell large engineering contracts to potential clients who wanted it for free. They were competing with companies out there that would. Most of the high profile projects they were awarded were based primarily on the relationships that were developed by Joe III and Paul Swiderski. They were not interested at working at the "hang and bang" level. Selling engineering contracts was a hard thing for the lesser experienced AE's to get their arms around.

"It is truly sad to see a company of the stature of Swiderski shut their doors. We are seeing more and more of that in our industry recently and I am sure this won't be the last major player it happens to. I wish them all the best."

Joseph Azzarello of AV Design & Engineering, worked at Swiderski for ten years. He said:

"I'm sorry to see them go. I wouldn't know anything about this business if it weren't for Swiderski. I'd chalk it up to the changing marketplace."

Representatives from the company, whose clients include Harpo Studios and thousands of others over the years. didn't return our calls in time for publication, so we don't know if rumors that a small group of management might start up another entity. We'll let you know as we learn more.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Live From NSCA -- A few highlights

Besides the products mentioned below, some other companies are providing rather integrator-friendly features in their products.

The NEC 610 model projector's short throw lens is one thing to read about, and another to see. You can place it just 4 inches away for a 40-inch image; 24 inches away for a 100-inch image. I saw it at about 8 inches away, sitting on an end table in front of the screen. Really nice.

Peerless is doing some integrator-friendly things with their universal mounts. Namely, the integrator receives the mount already partly assembled AND the hardware is all labeled, taking the guesswork about which screws, bolts, etc. are needed for that particular installation.

Live From NSCA -- Clarity

Clarity is showing its new Bobcat X 40-inch direct view LCD panel. It raises the specs a bit from the Bobcat, and it is much more flexible in terms of giving the installer only the connections they need, so they don't have to pay for ones they don't use. So, it's a bit easier to buy according to application rather than just make one that fits all.

Rob Murdock, director of product marketing, also says this panel is a true 16:9, a popular request among customers.

Live From NSCA -- Avocent

Avocent spent most of its years in business in the IT space, in KVM switching to be exact. As a result, they got pretty good at their own take on wireless technologies.

Their wireless -- video wireless -- technology is now making waves (sorry) at NSCA. Director of Strategic Business for Wireless Matt Nelson pointed to banks as one of the ideal locations where through-wall or line-of-site wireless signage for video would mean much simpler installations. But banks are only one solution and, at this point, it's looking like this technology can be used almost anywhere.

Here's why -- when I asked about a particular sign that stood alone, Matt pointed to another company's booth probably two aisles away and said "the signal is coming from there!" Bottom line: they're up to 3,000 feet line-of-site wireless video.

Sweet.

Live from NSCA -- Christie

Christie is giving a close-up demo of ChristieNET and its operations center. I didn't realize they installed Regal Cinema's huge digital signage network and most people never stop to consider all that's involved in monitoring 7,000 displays at once. As Christie's Max Kopsho explained, a network manager can't ping 7,000 screens and get replies from all of them to be sure they do, or don't, need maintenance. Christie's "non-polling" methodology (using an attachment called CCM that talks to the individual displays) lets the manager hear back from only those displays that need assistance. The way the network software works looked amazingly simple to me, which has to please busy signage managers.

Christie also has its own network service organization that has grown quite a bit over the past year. They have staffed up an entire department for network management providing service to dozens of companies.

Back to cinema, I got quite an education from Sr. Director of Advanced Media Displays Alan Dresner on what theaters are doing with digital projectors for pre-film programming. The ability for cinema houses to sell highly targeted advertising according to particular film demographics is one of the most logical and exciting, and complex, opportunities seen in a while.

-- Denise Harrison, Editor-in-Chief, rAVe

Monday, March 07, 2005

In the ProAV market? You'd better pay attention to the consumer market too...

Have you noticed the shift? If you haven't, take notice. Whether or not you want to admit it, the consumer market is "driving" the professional market in a big way. Most large manufacturers who have pro and consumer groups are now structured such that the professional groups are managed by the consumer groups, the pro version of products are coming out three to six months after the consumer versions (condider the new HD HandiCams, TiVo, the DVR, HD Plasma, HD LCDs, etc), and that consumer distributors are now selling pro products.

It's happening right under our noses.

So?

You better start caring or you'll be applying for a job at Circuit City as they need technical sales people to sell more plasmas in one day that you've ever sold in your entire AV career.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Randy AV

Have you ever noticed how many Randy’s there are in the AV market? It’s astonishing.

In fact, there are so many that I almost decided NOT to do this column, as I wasn’t sure how to write it without offending all the Randy’s that I will, inevitably, have to leave off – simply because of space.

Let’s start with the big guy, Randy Lemke. Those of you who know Randy (Lemke, that is) know that when I say big guy I mean that literally. Not only is he the head (executive director) of one of the two associations for the ProAV market, InfoComm, but also he’s like eight feet tall. OK, not eight feet, but at least 6’ 8”. I think.

Number two has to be Randy Pagnan. I have to list him second or he will never talk to me again. In fact, I am quite sure he will be upset with me for not listing him first as he thinks at something like 43 years old he’s been in the market longer than anyone. He does know everyone, though!

Oh, I just remembered, I probably should have done Randy Klein first – as the executive VP for Crestron and a client of mine, he’s deserving of number two, I mean number one. Randy might very well have been in the market longer than Randy number 1 and Randy number 2, combined. One time Randy told me he was thinking of skipping InfoComm but I know he won’t – that would be like the Pope skipping Easter mass.

Randy Tritz used to work for me back in the Extron days. He’s now in charge of Shen, Milsom, Wilke’s Chicago branch and just became partner. He’s a thinker – not that the first three aren’t, but Randy number 4 is someone who will sit in a meeting, not say a word until right before the meeting is breaking up, and then say the most important thing that was said the entire time we were in there. Cool guy, too! He’s the one who first turned me on to the Apple Computer back in the 1980’s.

Randy Riebe, now at Tandberg, used to be a colleague of mine when I was a VP at AMX. He’s one of the smartest systems guys I know in the ProAV market. He’s a very quiet guy, but knows his stuff! Tandberg is lucky to have him. Riebe, as he was known at AMX, seemed to be an insider before he even worked there – something no one else attained within AMX unless the founder Scott Miller anointed them that.

A Randy over at Zenith (Moore’s his last name) heads up product marketing. He’s put together a line of plasmas that are some of the best I have seen in the past 14 months. Another Randy success.

I have a great love for the ICIA Professional Education and Training Committee (PETC), as I served on it for 11 years. And there were many Randy’s that came and went on PETC. In fact one’s still there, Randy Jackson of the University of Washington. He’s bought a lot of stuff from Crestron’s Randy, interesting, huh?

Is it a Randy conspiracy?

Speaking of conspiracy, Randy number 2 (Pagnan that is) lives in California. Randy Pleasance from Coast Business Communications does too. I am definitely on to something. Both do AV systems, both live in California and both are named Randy.

Continuing, PESA’s manager of business development (currently the longest Randy AV title) is a Randy by the name of Randy Lloyd. He took me to my first Maggiano’s restaurant experience in Denver, Colorado. Man, their portions are huge – huge!

Randy Green, whose real name is Randell, but with the obvious leadership role that “Randy’s” hold in the AV world, goes by Randy, works for D-Tools. We see right through that. His position at D-Tools is so secretive that his press release didn’t even give a title – just that he was on the “senior management team.” Randall Dark, the well-known HDTV god, goes by Randall to be different.

Everyone’s probably heard of AVI (Audio Visual Innovations) in Florida. There’ve been lots of Randy’s there, but the head Randy is Randy Bonham – he’s the VP of sales. He’s been around a long time and I think at one time he was a good friend with Randy Pagnan.

Oh, check this out. Remember how I told you that InfoComm (headed by Randy number 1, Randy Lemke) was one of the two Pro AV industry associations? Well, do you know what the other association is? NSCA – National Systems Contractor Association. Well, NSCA’s current elected president is none other than another Randy, Randy Vaughn. And, he happens to write for Systems Contractor News – the very same publication that publishes articles by Randy Riebe (Randy number 5). And, just to show how these Randy’s have it all figured out, Randy Klein (Randy number 3) serves on NSCA’s Manufacturers Council. A definite conspiracy.

Moving along, Randy Weldon runs the ProAV group at Philips. He lives in Atlanta, far away from the other Randy’s, so I don’t think he’s part of the conspiracy. However, Randy Young, director of marketing for Magenta Research, based in Brookfield, CT, exhibits at NSCA – where all those other Randy’s volunteer. See, it’s all coming together.

Lutron, believe it or not, has three Randy’s (Brown, Sharrer and Thomas). They are all unrelated, but I still have to wonder how three Randy’s all work at the same company – a company serving the AV market. Ironically (or, maybe not), not too long ago, Lutron issued a press release about a job they did at Major League Baseball player Randy Johnson’s house, hmmm. Makes you think, huh?

Randy Siefert over at Telex is probably one of the most well known Randy’s in the market. But, no one knows for sure how to spell his last name (I know the feeling).

By the way, I see right through those hidden Randy’s too. You know the ones – those that hide their name with a slightly different spelling. But, the king-daddy (or mom, I guess) of hidden Randy’s is Brandi Lansing over at Washington-based audio processing manufacturer Symetrix. Know what she does? She’s in charge of HR (hiring people). I wonder how many “Randy’s” she’s hired??? Check it out.

Finally, the best-looking Randy is Randi Oeck. Actually, she goes by Ellis now, as she is married. But Randi used to work at Extron, too, with none other than Randy number 4, Randy Tritz. I wonder if she and Ms. Brandi Lansing are leading the conspiracy as their “Randy connection” is so well hidden.

This is Gary R. (Err, I mean V.) Kayye signing off.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Plasmas: Not All Made Alike

Have you noticed how many companies are selling "badged" plasmas now? Plasmas are all of a sudden perceived by the average person as a commodity - even though it's not!

Why do I say that? Well, when a product is a commodity, they [all brands; all models] are virtually identical. And, they're not. Gateway's proof of that. Dell, too. In fact, right now, there are three generations of plasmas on the market available from various manufacturers. And, some are good and some are great! And, some are terrible. I feel sorry for someone who buys one in that last group!

I own a Sony plasma - in fact, I have two. One is four years old and the other is brand new. Both are awesome. So, when my neighbor called me the other day to ask if he should buy the one at the Bose store since it was almost $1000 less than the Sony - what do you think I told him? You guessed it!

--Gary